How many poets in America know the difference between a two- and four-barrel carburetor? Could any of them identify it by sound? Would any of these poets know how to use a spot welder? Or lay down a soil stabilizer? Is there one who can run a lathe?
These are not idle questions. In the past century, as the great generation of American poets born in the 1920s left university — largely Harvard (Adrienne Rich, Richard Wilbur, Robert Bly, and John Ashbery) and Princeton (W.S. Merwin, Galway Kinnell) — another group (James Wright and Philip Levine among them) raised themselves out of working-class backgrounds and into the middle class, becoming teachers of poetry.
Now it is so uncommon for poets not to emerge from a university setting that a large hullabaloo greets them when they’re good, as if only university training can sharpen the knives a poet uses against herself and language. Think of the hubbub that greeted Patricia Lockwood (who never went to college) upon the publication of her second collection, “Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals,” this summer.
This is not an issue of class, but of content. Poetry must refract experience to be poetry, and it does this by using language at its highest level. American poetry doesn’t have the pressures of the novel, it is not a social form; but some of the best of it (think of Allen Ginsberg’s “The Fall of America,” or Nikky Finney’s “Head Off & Split”) has meditated on what it means to be an American. If our poets spend an increasing part of their lives in university, what exactly will America mean to them?
It is in this context that the poetry of B.H. Fairchild is a cause of celebration. Raised in hardscrabble oil towns in Texas and Kansas, reared in a machine shop where his father spent his life, Fairchild knows what work is, to borrow a phrase from Levine, and he has seen what it does to men and women. Not since Wright’s poems of the 1950s Midwest has so much beauty been yoked out of heavy machinery:
Rows of drill collars stand in racks and howl
in the blunt wind. Chain and hoist cable
bang the side of a tin bunkhouse as men stunned
with hangovers wake to the drum of a new day.
Here are poems by a man who has spent a good deal of time out of doors. They are noisy, visually arresting poems, full of occult weather systems, the barbed nostalgia of a man born into one world, now inhabiting another. Like Wright and Levine before him, Fairchild was raised working class but has made a living teaching in universities, where ontological problems are often treated as theoretical concerns, rather than the things one faces when the space-time continuum has been arrested by movement within the classes.
In “Beauty,” a long poem that begins in Florence, detours through high school football fields of Kansas, and returns to Donatello’s “David,” Fairchild threads a line from the Renaissance conception of beauty to the accidental kind, not named as such, but surely recognizable as when “the metal roof of the machine shop . . . would break into flame on an autumn day, with such beauty.”
Fairchild’s poems describe machines in human terms, and humans like machines. A trailer hitch has “a twisted tongue,” a ruptured Pontiac is “comatose and tilted on three wheels.” A lathe “shudders and/starts its dark groan.” In one poem, the poet describes making love to his wife after changing oil, and in the aftermath “She touches her belly,/the scar of our last child, and the black/prints of my hands along her hips and thighs.”
Like Wright, Fairchild also constantly finds the frailness and fragility lurking behind projected strength. The men in his poems, so often veterans of war, might buy beer and “drink it straight from pitchers held/like trophies,” but it is the “sadness/in their happiness, their hands upon our backs,” that the poet remembers, after a big football game. He notes how men looking for Goodwill hand-outs on Figueroa Street in Los Angeles in 1975 “stand shyly with their hands raised slightly,/as if waiting for permission.”
As he looks back to the past, Fairchild always contemplates time, the way it shaves and alters even the hardest surfaces. A number of prose poems in the voice of fictional alter ego Roy Eldridge Garcia also expand his register, proving had he chosen to, he’d have written good novels as well. Instead, he has spent a lifetime singing the body electric of small, dying towns, day-laborers and the beers at the end of their day, the pressure it puts on the man who must remember it all.
John Freeman is writing a book on American poetry.